The New Year is upon us! So we at SwimSwam are wrapping up our 2016 Swammy Awards with a look back at the 16 biggest stories of the year 2016.
Bear in mind: these aren’t necessarily our favorite stories. Some were downright painful to cover. They’re not the most positive stories, or the most inspirational, or the most controversial. They’re the 10 stories that most dominated the news landscape over the past 12 months.
In the same way, this isn’t a recounting of specific meets or swims – you can find something like that in our Swammy Awards. These stories spanned multiple stories and multiple news cycles, some of them dominating the sport for almost the entire year.
16. Ledecky Begins College Career
In the era of Michael Phelps, fans had to wait for summer season and international meets to see the world’s best swimmer compete. But lately, the top American women have graced the college ranks, and this season was no different. Katie Ledecky, the most dominant distance swimmer in history, started her freshman year with the Stanford Cardinal. And we didn’t have to wait long for the fireworks to start, as Ledecky broke three NCAA records within her first 3 months at the Farm.
15. Missy Franklin Struggles
News isn’t always positive. One of the biggest overarching stories in this Olympic year was the struggle of Missy Franklin, the Olympic hero in 2012 and best female swimmer on the planet in 2013. Franklin had a relatively quiet first season as a pro, returning home to Colorado but only making the U.S. Olympic team in the 200 back and 200 free. She bowed out in semifinals of both events in Rio, but did earn gold as a prelims swimmer on the 4×200 free relay.
14. The Finger Wag Heard ‘Round the World
One of two major trash-talking rivalries that heated up around Rio included American breaststroker Lilly King and Russian breaststroker Yulia Efimova. Efimova shifted in and out of Olympic eligibility after a failed doping test (hint: you might read more about that later in this list) but ultimately swam in Rio. King made her disagreement with that fact very clear, most notably wagging her finger at Efimova through a TV during qualifying runs of the 100 breast. King would win the 100 breast, but Efimova earned silvers in both the 100 and 200 breaststrokes.
13. The Phelps Baby
It wasn’t an earth-shattering expose, but it did captivate swim fans around the world to see Olympic icon Michael Phelps show his human side in the lead-up and aftermath of the birth of his first son, Boomer. Long swimming’s most recognizable icon, Phelps was known to fans for his work in the pool and very seldom for his personality out of it. In fact, prior to this year, most of Phelps’ out-of-pool news was troublesome. But when Phelps became a father, the world got to see a new side to the greatest swimmer of all-time – a decidedly positive one for a swimmer who finally appears truly happy in and out of the water.
12. Mack vs Sun
The other big Rio rivalry was in the distance races, with Australian Mack Horton and China’s Sun Yang. But this one reportedly passed beyond mere words. Reports out of Rio indicated the two had some sort of altercation in a warm-down pool, and Horton also challenged Sun about a doping suspension Sun served back in 2014. Once again, both swimmers found success outside of their feud: Horton touched out Sun for gold in the 400 free, but Sun won the 200 free gold.
11. Stanford Relay DQ Decides NCAA Title
Even pre-Katie Ledecky, Stanford had been building a recruiting empire. With loads of talent arriving to the Farm, 2016 looked like it could be the first year of a multi-year Stanford run at the top of the women’s NCAA. But a day 2 disqualification in the 200 free relay took away an NCAA event title from the team and also set the Cardinal back 40 points. When the dust settled, Georgia took home the team title – by just 19 overall points. It’s not often a DQ affects the outcome of a national title – in this case, one DQ accounted for not one, but two NCAA crowns (the relay win and the team title).
10. Princeton Suspends Swim & Dive Program
A latecomer to this list: just a few weeks ago, Princeton University announced it would be suspending it’s men’s swimming & diving team for the entire season. The university reportedly discovered “vulgar,” “offensive,” “racist,” and “misogynistic” material on the team’s university-sponsored listserv, essentially a group email chain. The news set off debates among readers over the appropriateness of the punishment, the severity of the alleged inappropriate material and the conduct of athletes competing at the sport’s highest levels. This story is far from over, as the team’s suspension should have major impacts on the Ivy League and NCAA landscapes moving forward.
9. Currents in Rio pool?
Data-savvy swim fans stumbled on a theory about the fairness of the Rio Olympic pool, suggesting that a current may have affected swimming in certain lanes. Barry Revzin provided videos of their current tests,published his analysis of the subject on SwimSwam shortly after the Olympics, setting off a big discussion about pool fairness, currents and swimming facilities. The designers of the Olympic pool disagreed with the allegations, and which used buoys to check for water movement within the pool. The ensuing fan discussions pulled at one of swimming’s more interesting facility issues and led to some retroactive analysis of other major swimming events from years past.
8. Joe Bernal Banned
Hall of Fame swim coach Joe Bernal was added to USA Swimming’s banned list in April. Not only did the story of his suspension have the usual reader arguments associated with sexual abuse claims and coaching bans, it also forced a number of high-profile institutions to make decisions about how to handle honored members who were later charged with major violations. Fordham University removed Bernal from its Hall of Fame, while the ASCA had to wait for a fall meeting to create a policy on how to handle similar situations in the future. Bernal was eventually removed from the ASCA Hall of Fame, while a policy is still in the works.
7. Lochte Rio BathroomGate
It started as a strange sidecar story to the Rio Olympics and eventually ballooned into a full-on side circus. American Olympian Ryan Lochte at first claimed he was robbed at gunpoint late one night in Rio. Eventually, evidence started to suggest that Lochte and three other American swimmers were asked to pay for damages they caused at a bathroom in Brazil. Lochte eventually apologized for exaggerating the story even as Brazilian authorities tried to charge him with reporting a false crime. Security camera footage leaked showing Lochte, Jimmy Feigen, Gunnar Bentz and Jack Conger outside of a gas station bathroom, and Lochte was accused of damaging a sign outside the gas station. The story still hasn’t become fully clear. Some allege the four vandalized the bathroom and were asked to pay for it. Other suggest the four were extorted for more money than necessary to cover the broken sign. Some accounts include armed security guards; some suggest guns were pointed at the swimmers. Some allege massive damage to the bathroom; others claim only a metal sign was knocked down.
Wherever the truth actually lies, the incident led to Conger and Bentz being pulled off of their aircraft at the last minute to testify as witnesses in the case. Lochte made it out of Brazil before the wheels really started turning, but Feigen was detained and forced to make a $10,800 donation to a Brazilian institution before he could leave the country. It also caused the USOC and USA Swimming to suspend Lochte for 10 months and disqualify him from the 2017 World Championships team and suspend Conger, Bentz and Feigen for 4 months.
6. Ervin Wins 2nd 50 free Gold 16 Years Later
On a more positive note was the story of Anthony Ervin, who spent the year fighting for his second Olympic berth post-retirement. After making the Rio team in the 50 free, Ervin accomplished something extremely impressive – 16 years after winning his first Olympic gold medal in the 50 free, Ervin did it again. The 35-year-old topped a stellar splash and dash field for gold, beating France’s Florent Manaudou (almost a decade Ervin’s junior) by just .01.
5. Brock Turner Sexual Assault Trial
Former Stanford swimmer Brock Turner was first arrested on sexual assault charges back in January of 2015, but his story became one of the biggest in 2016 due to his trial, sentence and incarceration. Though the story was a big one around SwimSwam’s readership from the initial arrest, the news exploded in mid-2016 when Turner was convicted of sexual assault and then sentenced to 6 months in jail. Critics blasted the sentence as overly-lenient, and the sentiment caught fire over social media. Statements from the sexual assault victim and Turner’s father stoked the fire, and a new wave of criticism erupted when Turner was released after just 3 months in jail. A story about a very sensitive and troubling issue that hits very personally for a large number of readers, the Turner sexual assault trial was among the most-discussed events of the year.
4. Russian Swimmers In, Then Out, Then In for Rio Olympics
Another issue with a hotbed of opinions, this story ties closely with another story farther down this list. Russian athletes were at first rumored to be banned from the Rio Olympics after allegations of a massive state-sponsored doping program within the country for at least the 2014 Winter Olympics. Eventually, only a short list of Russian athletes were banned, though those athletes could challenge their bans with various courts. The main swimmers affected were former world champs Yulia Efimova, Vladimir Morozov and Nikita Lobintsev. The three were at first ruled out, then ruled back in, then ruled out… their status remained hazy right up until the week of the Olympics, but all three were allowed to swim. Efimova won two silver medals.
3. Simone Manuel Becomes First Black Woman To Win Olympic Swimming Gold
Maybe the most shocking race of the 2016 Olympics was the women’s 100 free, where two youngsters (American Simone Manuel and Canadian Penny Oleksiak) tied for gold with the world record-holder and heavy favorite faltering to outside the medals. But broader than just swimming, the race signaled a major step forward for American swimming and international swimming in the area of race, with Manuel becoming both the first African-American woman and the first black woman to win Olympic swimming gold. Manuel herself paid homage to previous black swimming medalists after the race. The first black swimmer to win an Olympic medal was Enith Brigitha in 1976. The first to win gold was Anthony Nesty in 1988. The first African American woman to win a medal in swimming was Maritza Correia, just 12 years ago in 2004. Manuel became just the third-ever African American swimmer to win gold, joining Anthony Ervin and Cullen Jones.
2. Michael Phelps Farewell Tour
The overarching story of the entire year was Michael Phelps, making his last bid for Olympic medals. Phelps – who vows that 2016 was his last Olympics – made a historic run at age 31, qualifying for the U.S. Olympic team in the 100 fly, 200 fly and 200 IM. Phelps ultimately led all male swimmers with 5 gold and a silver medal in Rio, helping the U.S. sweep the relays after a rough relay outing for the team in 2015. Phelps also became the first man to four-peat as Olympic champ in the same event, winning the 200 IM in 2004, 2008, 2012 and 2016. More than that, Phelps’ farewell tour was about swimming fans getting to watch the man they’d cheered on for the better part of two decades close his career as a mature, content and truly happy man. Newly-married and fresh into fatherhood, Phelps opened up more in 2016 than he ever had before, admitting his struggles during his years of swimming dominance and sharing his journey into happiness while leaving behind the sport he’s defined for so many years.
1. McLaren Reports
If there was one story consistently at the forefront of 2016 in sports, it was doping. In some ways, 2016 and the preceeding few years were to swimming what the mid-2000s “steroid era” was to baseball. High-profile swimmers tested positive – world champs, Olympic gold medalists, world record-holders. But the tinder that set off the doping discussion in 2016 were the two reports from Canadian law professor Richard McLaren. Dubbed the “McLaren Reports,” the reports investigated allegations of a massive, state-sponsored doping program within the nation of Russia. Originally, the investigation centered on athletics (track & field), but as more information was revealed, all sports were called into question. McLaren’s investigation alleged that Russia was swapping out and tampering with samples in the Moscow Anti-Doping lab, potentially to help specific high-achieving athletes avoid positive doping tests. The investigations led to a number of Russian athletes being banned from the Rio Olympics and all Russian Paralympians being banned from the Rio Paralympics.
The McLaren Reports were tangentially related to a huge wave of WADA anti-doping labs losing their accreditation over the year, with only some earning it back as of December. Even during the Olympics, the cloud of doping hovered, with almost every great performance being scrutinized and a number of Russian athletes being loudly booed before each race.
Just this week, Russian officials admitted that the allegations in the McLaren Reports were true, and that the nation had been running a complex, widespread operation to help athletes avoid doping bans.